You've got sourdough questions and I've got your answers. If you're ready to dive deep into sourdough bread baking you have to start at Sourdough 101.
Grab a cup of coffee, this is a long 'un.
I get sourdough questions allll the time. While I usually answer what I can/ direct them elsewhere, I decided to compile all I know into a post so I can direct people here and save myself from typing out long answers on instagram.
I'll assume some basic things, such as; you know what a sourdough starter is, and how the basic process of baking bread goes. (mix, knead, rise, shape, rest, bake)
I'm going to structure this as a FAQ style post so it's easy to find what you're looking for. Here we go...
Why would I even want to use sourdough?
Because it's tasty, man! No really, it's a nutrient dense, healthful, easily digestible bread compared to its store bought filled with crap counterpart. Its fun to bake with and your body can digest it better so its actually more filling. Which is good if you have children of the hollow leg variety! It'll take some learning, but once you stop learning...you might as well be dead. I'm a firm believer in life long learning.
Why is it called natural yeast? wild yeast? sourdough? whats the difference?
As far as I can gather there is very few difference and basically its just people calling it different things. That may put a bee in someones bonnet...but thats my opinion. I like the sound of sourdough better, so I use it!
How do I get my own starter?
- From a friend! I love this way. I just mailed my cousin some, heres hoping it arrives okay, hah! Ask on a local shop and swap/classifieds group if you don't know anyone personally.
- Make your own! There is many detailed posts about this online, so for now I'm not going to get into this. You should need only flour and water. DO NOT ADD COMMERCIAL YEAST TO YOUR STARTER. It don't need it, man!
- Buy one online! I bought mine from Simple Life By Kels blog and I love it. It works way better than the one I made myself.
I've acquired a starter! Now, how do I take care of it?!
If you've bought one from someone online and it's still sitting in your cupboard waiting to be used...get it activated, man! Don't take what I say as law check what the instructions say, but most dried starters can be/get activated like this; pour half of dried starter (save some in case you fail!!) into a quart jar with 3 tablespoon warm water. Let it sit for 10 minutes, then add 3-4 tablespoon flour.
You may need to feed it for a week or two before it actually doubles well enough to bake with. This is okay, it needs to get used to where you are and what you're feeding it! During this process, if you get too much starter (more than your quart jar can hold with space to double, scoop out ¼ c to start in a new quart jar, and use the "discard" to make pancakes or other "sourdough discard" recipes. Or feed it to your chickens. They like that.
Watch me make Sourdough Starter like Ma Ingalls on YouTube!
What do I store my starter in?
I store my starter in various sizes of canning jars, depending on my needs. Usually a quart jar or a 2 qt jar. A quart jar can hold 1 ½-2 cups of starter, a 2 quart can hold 3-3 ½. Remember, it doubles, so you need a bigger jar than you think. A 2 qt jar means I can make a couple big batches of things and still have enough starter left to feed and put in the fridge. You have a couple options for covering your jar, my favourite being a canning lid, with the rubber ring side up against the lid (upside down) instead of against the jar. This lets out enough air that it won't explode, but keeps it covered from bugs and other stuff. This only works with an established starter that doesn't need to feed off the wild yeasts in the air. If you're starting your own starter, you must use a thin cloth or coffee filter. Once its well established, or if you got it from someone else/bought online, you can switch to the upside down canning lid which is much easier to deal with!
How to feed your starter;
Some people get very technical here, and I think that scares off people from using sourdough. I don't weigh, I don't even measure, I eyeball it. I look at my jar, stir down the starter, and eyeball how much is there. If there is about 1 cup of starter, I'll feed about one cup of flour, and ½-3/4 c of water. YOUR STARTER WILL DOUBLE. MAKE SURE YOUR JAR IS BIG ENOUGH FOR THIS. IT DRIES ON LIKE GLUE WHEREVER IT OVERFLOWS.
You want just enough water so that your starter is a thick muffin batter texture. As the starter "eats" the flour and digests it, it'll get thinner. The longer it's been since you fed your starter, the thinner it'll be. If you want to slow your starter down a bit, use cold water. If you are hoping to bake with it in 4-6 hours, use warm water. Your starter will on average, take 6-8 hours to double, and a good starter will stay doubled another 6-12+ hours (again, weather dependant).
But what do I feed my starter?!
The best quality flour you can afford. Seriously. Cheap crappy flour is, well, cheap crap. To be frank. No beating around the bush there. You want high quality bread? But high quality flour. What does this mean? It means for white flour, we buy Organic, Unbleached White Flour. Not all organic flours are equal, so try a few to make sure you're getting the best one. I'm yet to find a store bought whole wheat flour I like, if i didn't have a grain mill, I'd only use white flour. The bran in whole wheat flour goes rancid and makes gummy bread that doesn't rise well. Sourdough white bread is still much more healthful than store bought whole wheat bread. Okay, that was a tangent.
We used wedding money years ago to buy a grain mill. IknowIknowIknow. We're too cool. Now my sisters both have them as they saw how amazing the quality was of the flour (luck for them, one got as a wedding present and one got my wedding present one as I got a freebie from Wondermill for writing recipes for them). I use a hard red wheat for baking breads and such. I use soft white bread for cakes, muffins, etc. Your best bet for any flour is to buy it in 25 or 50 lb bags once you know you like the flour. A small bag of flour is scary expensive! While my 10kg/22lb bag of organic white flour costs $35, the cost per loaf is very small if you break it down! Im in Canada, if you're in the states, you'll probably find it for a better price. Life's too short to eat bad bread.
But What if I'm gluten free?
How often do I feed my starter?
If you're keeping it on the counter, it's going to depend on the temperature of your house. If your house is warm/its summer, every 24 hours. If your house is chilly, you can stretch it to 36-48 hours. Your starter will tell you if it needs to eat more/eat more often cause you'll see a liquor smelling liquid on top of your starter called "hooch". Just pour it off, discard down to ¼ c and feed from there.
You'll have two main problems with your starter A) How to slow it down so you aren't swimming in starter. B) How to get more starter
We'll start with the first problem, How do I slow down/put my starter on hold if I don't want to bake everyday? I don't believe in discarding starter unless I'm desperate. When I see instructions for "discard half, then feed the starter" I feel like it's a big old waste cause some people literally just chuck it.
If I say discard, I mean find some way to use it. Make pancakes, google a "sourdough discard" recipe, find a way to use it, other than just chucking! If your start is really not healthy, then yes, discard down to just ¼ c and feed it fresh, but for regular use, don't discard. Thats an insult to the farmers that grew the wheat. Cold slows down a starter, warmth speeds it up. To slow down your starter, feed it, and put it in the fridge. You can bake with it weekly, keeping it in the fridge in between.
My usual baking schedule looks like this- Monday; take starter out and feed it. Tuesday evening; mix up doughs. Feed starter and put it back in the fridge. Wednesday morning; shape and bake loaves. I find this the most streamlined/low maintenance way to bake with sourdough. I can leave my starter in the fridge for two weeks with no ill effects. I haven't experimented with longer, so I don't have any advice for you there.
A note about feeding; Your starters "food" is the flour you use. Your starter doesn't know how to digest/grow with anything but that. Use the same flour consistently, if you want to use a different flour, transition over a few feeds. If you are feeding with all white, but then try to bake a loaf with all whole wheat, your starter gets confused. Feed your starter with what you want to bake with, so for me that means I feed half fresh ground red fife and half white flour. That way it'll make delicious 100% fresh ground or 100% white bread!
How to grow your starter;
You can do something magic...I usually keep about ¼ of starter in a jar in the fridge. On Monday when I take it out, I feed it about 2 cups of flour and 1 ½ c of water. It'll wake up, and turn all that into starter within 24 hours! (more like 12 usually)
BUT I'VE GOT A STARTER ALREADY AND I'M JUST NOT HAPPY WITH IT. Well. Two things. One, where did you get your starter from? I made my own and wasn't as happy with it. It died when I gave birth to Freja and afterwards I bought one from Simple Life By Kels blog and I'm soooo much happier with the baked goods. It's more resilient, stays doubled longer and bakes things up nicer.
Another thing to look at, is what are you feeding it? Could you be using a higher quality flour? Often the white flours in the store are so processed they have nothing left for a starter to even "eat and live off of"! Or are you trying to bake with different flours that you're feeding it? If it's not doubling, then you may need to make it thicker by feeding it more flour, as a thin starter can't physically double! Anyhow...all food for thought.
Baking with your starter;
Now is the fun part! Woohoo! You've got a starter! Now you can bake sourdough! No matter how much you love whole wheat flour, bake with white flour to start off with. thats my advice. Get the hang of it before you dive into using different flours. This will allow you to figure out how it works without having hockey puck after hockey puck of a loaf.
How do I know when my starter is ready to be used after being fed?
For the majority of recipes, you want to use starter than is fairly active, having been fed in the last 24-36 hours, but it has doubled since you fed it last. Mine takes 6 hours to double on average, so I keep that in mind when feeding it. Usually I feed it one morning, and bake with it that evening or the following morning, then feed what starter is left.
How much starter do I need to save?
As a rule of thumb, make sure you have ¼ c of starter to feed and put back on the counter/in the fridge. If you accidentally use it all...do not fret! Put some warm water (¼c?) in the jar, put a lid on and shake it around, scrape down the sides, and feed flour as per usual. The good wild yeasts are still there on the sides of the jar! Yay!
How to find a good sourdough recipe;
There is some tricky sourdough recipes out there. I read those and I feel like...how do you manage that and still live a normal life?! While they're fun to play around with, you need workhorse recipes to feed your family day in and day out. A sourdough recipe should look similar to a commercial yeast dough recipe, except instead of yeast, it calls for starter. And the rise times will be longer! Much longer. Thats how I know its a good recipe and one I want to try.
What about measuring? Grams? Cups?
Personally, I rarely use recipes with grams, simply because they are often more complicated recipes. I don't want complicated recipes. I want simple recipes. Do what you please.
How long do I knead my sourdough for?!
Most recipes give you some timeline on kneading your dough, one of them being to knead until "windowpane". To dumb it down, windowpane is when you can take a golf ball sized hunk of dough, roll it in a ball, stretch it and see light through, like a windowpane. I quite often don't check for windowpane.
The other thing is that kneading is not quite as crucial if you're doing 12-18 hr long rises (see below). Time can replace effort in the forming of gluten structure. This means that the gluten structure forms better on a longer rise vs a short. So you can cheat and cut kneading short, if you're going to rise for 12+ hours. There is a line where a super long rise means a tangy tangy sourdough loaf. Maybe thats your thang. Its not my main jam. I did a 19 hr rise+2 hr rest on a batch this morning and it was a little tangy. Thats okay, still delicious.
How long do I let my sourdough dough rise?!
There is all sorts of fancy names for the rises but we'll call them this. The first, long rise, is called, the long rise. The second rise after shaping I call the rest. The first rise is when the gluten structure is forming and the dough is rising and getting bigger. In my experience, unless it's super warm in your house or you're putting the dough somewhere really warm, you need minimum 6-12 hours on the long rise to get a good loaf. To achieve a 6 hour rise I use warm water in the recipe, warm the oven up a minute and put the bowl in there. It takes effort for me to achieve a 6 hour rise. Many recipes say "keep your starter/bread between 70F to 85F". Dude. I'm lucky if my kitchen is 70F when I wake up in the morning!! Its most often 50-60F for half of the year!
My house gets chilly overnight so I prefer to mix up a dough in the afternoon, let it rise 12-18 hours, and deal with it in the morning. Rise times are guidelines. They can't predict how warm you house is/how warm the water was you used/how much you kneaded/how your starter performs. I've never had a recipe go wrong doing a 12-18 hours rise, even when it calls for a 5-6 hour rise.
If your house is super duper warm, let the dough sit on the counter for a few hours, then move it to the fridge until morning. In the morning I shape the loaf and let it rest 1-2 hours. I do this, pretty much no matter what the recipe says for the long rise and rest. Many times a recipe calls for multiple rests and I don't do this either. Will I get a slightly different finished product? Yes, but it'll still be yummy and it won't take so much goll dang work!
Usually, my timing looks like this- Between 12 noon and 7 pm I mix up my dough. My brain stops working after 7 so I don't bake then. Bad things happen.I know. You're like Kate, but thats such a broad space of time! Yes, it is, but thats the lovely thing. I've got 7 hours to get my bread dough made. I knead it, put it in a bowl and cover it and put it out of the way. The next morning, between 6 and noon, I punch it down, shape it and put it off to the side to rest. When I do it in the morning, depends on when I did it in the evening. If I mixed up the dough at noon, I'm going to be shaping by 6 am. I usually try mix up before dinner so I can have more like a 12-14 hour rise before shaping it the morning. I then let it rest for 1-2 hours. In the last half an hour of the rest, I heat up the oven. I bake most loaves, even if they're supposed to be shaped and put in a loaf, as a boule in a dutch oven. I just like how it bakes in there.
How do your crusts look so beautiful?
Slashing man! Slashing allows for oven spring. Baking in a dutch oven gives much better oven spring cause the dough can steam and rise in the dutch oven. When I shape the loaf, I make sure to rub extra flour on the nice side up. I then use a sharp sharp knife and gently cut ¾-1 inch deep slashes in the top of the loaf. You can get creative. Some look better than others. Horizontal slants are my favourite classic look.
But what if I don't have a dutch oven?
Thats okay! I only have one, but I have two other pots that I can use. You just need an oven safe pot, which means it can't have glass or plastic or anything but just metal. It can be a plain cast iron or enamelled cast iron pot. It needs to be minimum 1 gallon sized to allow for the loaf to sit in nicely.
How do I make sure its baked through enough?
Sourdough seems to take much longer than commercial yeast bread to bake! This messes with our minds. Follow the recipe time line for baking and if you're still not sure, add 5 more minutes. I'm yet to over bake a sourdough loaf. Only under bake. eh-hem. One of my children who shall not be named has broken two instant read thermometers in a row. I've had some slightly underbaked loaves recently,(nothing a good toast didn't fix) so I just hopped over to amazon and primed me a new one. Most regular loaves should be done at 190F. Breads heavily enriched with oils/butter, eggs, milk etc are closer to 205F.
OKAY PEOPLE. Heres the hard part!!
You must let your bread cool. Minimum 15 minutes. Preferably 30-60 minutes. Some say let it cool all the way to room temp. Why? Well, your bread has just been in a ridiculously hot oven. It needs to cool and set the gluten structure. Many loaves continue to steam/bake a bit after coming out of the oven. If you can be patient, you'll be rewarded with a better loaf of bread. Patience is a virtue. You went to all that effort and you can't wait a little bit more to have a better loaf? For shame, for shame...
How do I store my bread?
This is a dilemma. A standard loaf of bread does not fit in a large sized ziploc bag. Which is kinda annoying. You can cut your bread, you can use a gigantic bag, you can reuse bread bags. You can use containers. My favourite for freezing is to use big thick freezer bags that we use for packaging chickens up. I can re-use them many times. I put a couple loaves in there and pop in the freezer.
For on the counter storage, I use beeswax wraps! I have a "giant" sized one meant to fit on a casserole dish and it works terrific! This is the Abeego brand one I use. (thats an affiliate link. But I really do use em and love em and bought with my own money).
Sourdough Recipes on Venison for Dinner
Loaf Recipes I Love
- Whole Wheat Honey Molasses Bread
- Sourdough Challah
- Easy Sourdough Dutch Oven Bread
- Honey Whole Wheat Bread
- Wild Yeast Bread
Non-Loaf Recipes I love
- Sourdough Bagels
- Lemon Poppyseed Cake
- Sourdough Cinnamon Twists
- Trinas Pizza Dough (my favourite for calzones)
- Sourdough Foccacia (or pizza) dough
- Natural Yeast Dinner Rolls
Sourdough Starter "Discard" Recipes
Blogs with Sourdough Baking I love
Sourdough Books I have (affiliate links here)
- Sourdough by Sara Owens (This book is pretty intense. I use it for inspiration/kinda follow the recipes. They're not beginner ones. They're good inspo/bread porn though)
- Alaska Sourdough by Ruth Allman, (this is a fun, not very technical book. You need to have a basic understanding of sourdough to use this book as you'll need to tweak recipes. But its got great sourdough stories and can be bought super cheap used on amazon, which is what I did)
- Beyond Basics with Natural Yeast by Melissa Richardson (This book is a compilation of a lot of peoples recipes. They're all great, none have done me wrong, a little bit of everything, a good starter book for recipes. No weird steps in any recipe I've tried)
If you have any questions not answered above, feel free to comment below and I'll edit my Sourdough 101 post to add the question+answer!